Mallory McMorrow remembers the sting of being slandered by a colleague for wanting to “groom” and “sexualize” young children. “I felt horrible,” she says. But instead of shrugging it off or trying to change the subject, as Democrats are often criticised for doing, the state senator from Michigan decided to fight back.
In just four minutes and 40 seconds, McMorrow delivered a fierce, impassioned floor speech at the state capitol that went viral on social media and earned a laudatory phone call from the US president.
She also offered a blueprint for how Democrats can combat Republicans intent on making education a wedge issue. The New Yorker magazine described her as “a role model for the midterms”. The New York Times newspaper added: “If Democrats could bottle Mallory McMorrow … they would do it.”
It was quite an ovation for a 35-year-old serving her first term in elected office. McMorrow, who previously worked as a car designer and branding and design consultant, is among a generation galvanised by resistance to Donald Trump and his red meat populism.
Soon after Trump’s election as president in 2016, she saw a video of middle school students chanting “Build the wall!” at another student; the school happened to be the polling place where she had voted. She felt motivated to go into politics and was elected in 2018 to the state senate for the 13th district, which covers suburbs just north of Detroit.
But the Michigan senate has been under Republican control since before McMorrow was born. In a time of acrimony and division, it was never going to be an easy ride.
Republican Lana Theis opened the latest senate session with an invocation that was part prayer, part Make America Great Again (Maga) battle cry: “Dear Lord, across the country we’re seeing in the news that our children are under attack. That there are forces that desire things for them other than what their parents would have them see and hear and know.”
McMorrow was among three Democrats who walked out in protest at the apparent reference to how schools address sexual orientation, gender identity and critical race theory – the target of Republican laws across the country.
She also tweeted criticism of the prayer, prompting Theis to lash out in a fundraising email: “These are the people we are up against. Progressive social media trolls like Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Snowflake) who are outraged they can’t teach can’t groom and sexualize kindergarteners or that 8-year-olds are responsible for slavery.”
Grooming, a term used to describe how sex offenders initiate contact with their victims, has recently become a Republican buzzword and nods to QAnon conspiracy theories that hold Democrats run a pedophile ring. It is no less hurtful for being so preposterous.
McMorrow recalls in a phone interview from the state capital, Lansing: “I’m the mom of a one-year-old and I sat in how horrific I felt all day and realised, if I feel that bad for one day, this is how bad it feels for those who are targeted unfairly every single day. It has to stop, which is why I decided to say something publicly.”
She got to work on a response as she bathed her daughter Noa at their home in Royal Oak. “She was just looking at me and laughing, so oblivious, and I was suddenly filled with all of these things that I wanted to say. So I wrote everything down. I crossed a lot of it out. I was up a lot of the night writing what I wanted to say and what I didn’t want to say.”
When McMorrow delivered the speech, Theis – who is from a different district and facing a Trump-endorsed challenger for her seat – did not even look at her, she recalls. But other state senators were unusually still and silent. And soon the rest of America would be paying attention.
McMorrow, her red hair tied back, told the chamber: “So who am I? I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are white is absolute nonsense.”
She continued: “People who are different are not the reason that our roads are in bad shape after decades of disinvestment or that healthcare costs are too high or that teachers are leaving the profession. I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard, and supported, not marginalised and targeted because they are not straight, white and Christian.
“We cannot let hateful people tell you otherwise, to scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they are not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives. And I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”
A video of the address racked up millions of views across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. A tweet thread from McMorrow about it amassed more than 76,000 retweets. Leading Democrats outside Michigan including Hillary Clinton encouraged their social media followers to watch, as did activists and celebrities such as Mia Farrow, Don Lemon, Joe Scarborough and Maria Shriver.
Joe Biden called and thanked McMorrow for saying what he felt needed to be said, she recalls. She also raised a stunning quarter of a million dollars in less than 24 hours. No one was more surprised than she was at becoming a breakout star of the Democratic party.
“I am a state legislator in one of 50 states in the country and occasionally we hope that our video goes a a little bit outside of our district. I had no idea that it would go quite as far as it has but it did feel good. I wanted what I said to be about the issue and identity and not getting into this Democratic versus Republican mudslinging that we always see.”
“I wanted to speak on behalf of everybody who’s on the receiving end of these attacks and also point out that, even if you are not the parent of a trans child, this is a scapegoat technique because it’s not fixing any of your daily problems.”
McMorrow’s election flipped her district from red to blue and she still hears from plenty of Republican constituents. “We get calls in our office every week from people who are really upset – and you can hear it in their voice – about issues that they probably didn’t even think about a few months ago.
“That is what drove me to want to make this kind of point: they are lying to you to get you so mad and hateful toward somebody else, as if somebody else is the cause of all your problems, when they’re not doing anything to help you.”
Why did the speech strike such a chord? McMorrow suggests that Democrats have been afraid of talking about religion and faith openly while Republicans have sought to weaponise Christianity and create the illusion that they speak on behalf of all white suburban mothers.
She reflects: “It feels like Democrats have ceded ground to the Republican party on Christianity and religion and family values and patriotism. Waving a lot of American flags tends to be associated with the Republican party now despite the fact that many of my colleagues supported the insurrection [in Washington on January 6, 2021].
“I was speaking to a lot of people who look and are like me: white, comfortable, non-marginalised suburban moms – who I know don’t feel the same way as the current strategy of the Republican party and who maybe haven’t been as active – to say this only happens because we’ve let it happen and we need to reclaim our own identities and say we care about our families, our communities.
“I am a parent. I want my daughter to grow up and meet people who are different from her and be empathetic and kind. The response that I’ve got from people is, ‘You have said everything that I feel and haven’t had a way to articulate.’”
Democrats are often accused of being too hesitant and timid in the face of Republicans pushing hot button topics. A plea by the then first lady, Michelle Obama, in 2016 – “When they go low, we go high” – has been seen as an argument for deeming such issues unworthy of a response and talking policy instead. But some hailed McMorrow for showing how to take on Republicans at their own game.
Congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat now running for the US Senate in Ohio, told the Axios website: “I think you absolutely need to have that kind of tone, that kind of attitude on these issues. These guys are punching down … I think you’ve got to hit back. You’ve got to hit back hard.”
There are now signs that leading Democrats, contemplating heavy losses in the midterm elections, are ready to acknowledge the potency of Republican attacks and return fire. Biden, for so long devoted to bipartisanship, has recently begun using the phrase “ultra-Maga” about the party that has careered outside the democratic mainstream.
McMorrow, who is up for re-election in November and describes herself as a practical progressive who aligns with Senator Elizabeth Warren, says some of her Democratic colleagues find it hard to accept that these are not normal times.
“I do believe the Democrats have policy issues that help people and we need to talk about those things but right now people can’t even hear them if they’re so worried about this moral panic that has been created.
“We have to destroy that first if we want to get back to how are we fixing the roads, how are we making sure that we don’t have lead in our water, how do we make sure that there are more teachers in the profession. We can strongly point out Republicans are not offering any policy ideas and take the debate to that place. And get aggressive.”